The Laugh of the Medusa Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hélène Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” advocates new ways of thinking and writing about women and literature. The essay has become a staple of feminist criticism because of its incisive critique of patriarchal politics, its endorsement of a feminist philosophy that is grounded in poststructuralism and psychoanalytic theory, and its modeling or representation of the possibilities of écriture féminine (“feminine writing”)—what Cixous calls white ink. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is also a call to arms, urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.

Concerned with traditional representations of women by men in literature and other scholarly texts, Cixous begins her analysis by invoking the classical figure of Medusa, but she does so by refiguring how Medusa has been represented through the ages. In this way, Cixous reclaims her. Traditionally, Medusa has been portrayed as a physical and moral monster; with snakes in place of hair, Medusa turns the men who look upon her to stone. However, Cixous’s Medusa laughs, which is both a joyful and a disruptive act that can lead to new directions for women’s (feminist) writing. From the first paragraph, women’s writing is positioned as both liberating and intervening.

Phallocentrism, a male-dominated, masculine-coded linguistic and philosophical system—or, to put it more simply, male bias—keeps women from accessing their own stories. Without this access, women lack knowledge of the multiple ways to be; women, thus, have no body and are thus nobody. It is imperative, Cixous argues, that a woman must, broadly speaking, “write her self” and “put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Essentially, Cixous calls upon women to assert themselves in writing and in the world by leaving their literary imprint, and she speaks in terms associated with revolution. Among Cixous’s aims are to “break up” and “destroy” and “to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.” Thus, her agenda in “The Laugh of the Medusa” is to call into question and break from the existing literary and social order and to embrace a new vision for women and literature through the form and content of her own essay.

Cixous has been criticized for what some see as essentialist tendencies in her work, meaning that she perceives women as biologically determined and universally similar. While Cixous does reference psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, she moves away from their absolutism. Instead, she emphasizes plurality and multiplicity. Cixous, in arguing that there is no “general” or “typical” woman, focuses her study on what women have in common: a history ofexclusion and a legacy of limited agency and visibility.

Cixous discusses the female body and women’s sexuality in connection with writing for several reasons: Women are driven away both from their own bodies and from their own sexualities, sexuality informs and...

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The Laugh of the Medusa Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2d ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 2002. A helpful introduction to literary theory that provides an excellent and elegant overview of various critical theories. Chapter 6, a feminist criticism, contextualizes Cixous’s work. Includes a good suggested-readings list.

Benstock, Shari, Suzanne Ferriss, and Susanne Woods. A Handbook of Literary Feminisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A concise introduction to feminist theory that offers a short discussion on literary theory, language, and Cixous’s ideas on écriture feminine.

Blyth, Ian, with Susan Sellers. Hélène Cixous: Live Theory. New York: Continuum, 2004. In this book examining Cixous’s theoretical writing, the authors contextualize her body of work, including “The Laugh of the Medusa.”

Cixous, Hélène. White Ink: Interviews on Sex, Text, and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. This book comprises interviews with Cixous. Chapter 6, “My Text Is Written in White and Black, in ’Milk and Night,’” is an insightful interview that touches on “The Laugh of the Medusa.”

Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Although the discussion on Cixous is abbreviated, the section on feminism and psychoanalysis may provide some useful background.

Jacobus, Lee A., and Regina Barreca. Hélène Cixous: Critical Impressions. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach, 1999. This anthology of essays originated from a special journal issue on Cixous in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory. See the pertinent essays “The Medusa’s Slip: Hélène Cixous and the Underpinnings of Écriture Féminine” by Anu Aneja and “Hélène Cixous: A Space Between—Women and (Their) Language” by Pamela A. Turner.

Zajko, Vanda, and Miriam Leonard. Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This book features a particularly interesting assortment of essays connected by their focus on classical myth—such as that surrounding Medusa—and feminism.